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New guidance from EHRC for employers after Eweida

Earlier this year the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in favour of a Christian employee's right to wear a small cross in the workplace when her employer had asked her to remove it from sight. The Eweida case, as it's widely known, has implications for how employers approach their responsibilities in relation to religion and belief rights in the workplace, according to new guidance published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

The ECHR decision ruled that Ms Eweida had been discriminated against on grounds of religion and that her employer had not reached a fair balance between her religious beliefs and its desire 'to project a certain corporate image'.

However, some analysts have pointed out that the ECHR decision relating to Ms Eweida's case was based on special circumstances. The court heard three other cases at the same time, and in all three it found that the complainants' rights to religious expression had not been violated by their employers. The most similar case involved a nurse who had been asked by her employer to stop wearing a necklace with a cross. The court ruled that the decision was necessary for the health and safety of both nurses and patients.

Experts say that taken as a whole, the rulings appear to give employers plenty of discretion to draw up policies and, as long as they are reasonable, expect their employees to follow them regardless of their religious beliefs. Commentators have concluded that being reasonable and taking a common-sense approach is key.

The EHRC guidance suggests that employers should sometimes be prepared to make adjustments to dress policies which, for example, prohibit the wearing of any jewellery. It recommends allowing employees to wear jewellery for religious reasons as long as it's mutually acceptable. In this way, it says the employer is still able to present the desired corporate image without letting the policy change have an adverse impact on others.

The three who had their cases dismissed plan to request they be referred to the Grand Chamber of the ECHR for a final ruling. In the meantime, the EHRC recommends employers use their guidance.

Acas provides practical training on discrimination legislation and management responsibility concerning issues around Equality, diversity and the Equality Act 2010. Visit the Acas Training and Business Solutions area for more information.

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